Commenter Boonton accuses my position on torture as “not clear.” Five or six years ago, if asked impulse would be along the lines of the film Taken, or other revenge oriented narratives if harm had come to my family or more specifically my daughters … torture and taking law into my own hands included with that package. But then again, my ethical framework has been turned about since I became Christian and my political thinking as well has, well, sharpened as a result of this exercise known as blogging came into my life. Since that time my notions of political ethics vs personal ethics have diverged … but not in the strictly simplistic fashion that one might imagine. Politically speaking I am influence by a number of sources, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Aleskandr Solzhenitsyn influence (in contrast to the more traditional influences along the lines of Hobbes, Locke, and the founders). For what follows I am going to try to establish what I see as the political ethical situation vis a vis torture.

Regarding torture. I find childish and simplistic the ordinary narrative we find so often arising from the left. That torture is well defined and clear cut. That it the consequential argument is all that is required to oppose it. That numbers do not matter, i.e., that the torture of 10 or 100 men (illegal combatants at that) is the same thing for a regime, for a people and ethically speaking as the torture of millions of innocents. That a good man cannot find himself driven to choose it as the lesser of evils (see again the movie noted above). All of these points are repeatedly made by the left and the critics of recent activities of the past (and it seems likely the current) Administration(s). Unfortunately, that these things are all wrong and in error is not the same as taking a position that torture should not be the policy taken by and on behalf of our country.

And it should be repeated that these combatants which are in custody, almost certainly to a man, are guilty of heinous war crimes. They themselves torture, drug, and abuse their enemy. They fight without regard to civilian or military personel as target, in fact more often than not they specifically target civilians. In prior ages, and rightfully so, their combat would be regarded as unspeakable and they would be summarily executed when apprehended. The only argument against doing just that as far as I have understood or heard is that is tactically unwise, i.e., a foe who knows he faces death on capture will fight to the last.

Torture is not well defined. There are large and relevant cultural and personal elements which need to be taken into account when considering what constitutes torture. This cannot be waved away as irrelevant. Seemingly this should be clearer to the “side” of the debate that scoffs at the failure to define pornography but that “one knows it when one sees it.” This is not in and of itself problematic. Torture has been used for two distinct purposes by regimes in the past (and likely in the present). One is to inculcate fear and terror in a populus. Consider again the (excellent) fim Das Leben der Anderen, it is true that the regime was venal and corrupt. It is also true that torture, fear, and terror “worked” in the purely consequential sense. Intimidation with the force of the state … is highly intimidating, especially if you have friends or family. It takes a heroic stance to be able to withstand such force and heroes are rare. Torture to obtain information also can be effective. It also can be not be effective if used poorly. For that matter, modern guns and weaponry and trained soldiers can be not be used effectively. Pointing that in a specific instance that torture was ineffectively used is not proof that it cannot be used effectively. Information gathering and analysis is a difficult task. Heisenberg and the quantum theorists of the early 20th century identified the notion that the observer and the observed are not two independent entities. An analogous thing operates in the gathering of information. One has to be careful that prejudices of the observer do not influence the data being sought, always a problem in high noise to signal environments. But I digress. The point is that any sort of interrogation is a flawed source of information. If a intelligence agency or community finds itself with a extreme dearth of information and feels that information is crucial at a juncture in a conflict … the desire and need to turn to alternate means, knowing that there is a price, i.e., that this is the least worst alternative, makes the turn to methods to extract information that are considered in the drawing room as torture is understandable.

However, torture is not consistent with the American way. We do not systematically speaking condone torture. This authority, to borrow from Jouvenel, has not been granted by the people. Furthermore, this conflict in which we find ourselves is highly asymmetric. We can and should claim that we will in fact not avail ourselves of these methods not because they are not useful, because if used intelligently they can be, but because we don’t need them to beat our enemies. We should make a stern point to highlight the difference between legal and illegal combatants and our treatment of the same. Sticking to our principles may have material and tangible costs. We should acknowledge that up front and accept. Or if we are unwilling to do so, we should be honest about our failing to do so and strive to come to a place were we do not have to sacrifice our principles to acheive those necessary ends.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityGovernmentMark O.You Cry Out

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